Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Arnold Bax (1883-1953) Mater ora filium

Arnold Bax did not compose a great deal of music for unaccompanied chorus, yet the few works he did write are invariably well produced and effective for both singers and audiences alike. A brief study of Graham Parlett’s essential Catalogue reveals six works that could be classified as being for unaccompanied chorus.

The earliest of these is the present Mater ora filium of 1921. The following year saw the desolate ‘This Worldes Joie’ written to a 14th century text. The short ‘carol’ entitled ‘The Boar’s Head’ was composed in 1923 for, and dedicated to, the Blackpool Festival Committee.  Out of interest, this event was won by the Warrington Male Choral Union –still going strong under a different name. The same year saw the straightforward working of ‘I sing of a maiden.’
Nearly twenty years elapsed until the 1942 settings of Five Greek Folksongs – which Bax himself regarded as being based on “...very quaint and rather barbaric tunes…”
Virtually the last composed work by Arnold Bax was the part-song ‘What is it like to be young and fair?’  This was a setting of words by the composer’s brother Clifford. It was performed as part of the Garland for the Queen as an event at the Coronation Celebrations in 1953.

Bax certainly did not contribute music for use in the church – although the present work could be given happily at a Christmastide recital or a choral concert in one of our great cathedrals. Of course this is not to suggest that Bax was anti-Christian, yet he certainly did not relate to the ritual and ceremonial of the Roman or Anglican Churches. In fact he had had a non-conformist childhood.  Perhaps it is better to suggest that Bax’s spirituality was found in other directions than conventional religion.  It could be that his spiritual temperament was more in tune with the Celtic Twilight as exemplified by W.B. Yeats.

Colin Scott-Sutherland quotes a personal reminiscence by Charles Kennedy Scott – “His [Bax’s] unaccompanied motet for double choir, ‘Mater ora filium’ came later when I had the satisfaction of performing it with the Oriana [Choir] at Messrs Murdoch’s concert of recent works of Arnold at [the] Queens Hall in November 1922. I have no doubt that this and Arnold’s other motets can be associated with what Arnold heard the Oriana do at the Balfour concerts ten years earlier…”

Yet in spite of Kennedy Scott claiming his choir to be the stimulation for Mater Ora Filium, the immediate inspiration for this work was found at a performance by the Tudor Singers of the William Byrd’s Five Part Mass. Bax heard this work at one of Harriet Cohen’s soirees at Wyndham Place. This great liturgical setting made a huge impression on Bax; in fact he thought it more significant than the music of J.S. Bach himself. Bax was attracted by this “spiritual, ornate and emotionally austere” music.

It could be argued argued that ‘Mater ora filium’ is imbued with the spirit of the Elizabethan age, yet it would be unfair to suggest any kind of pastiche or archaism.  The work is a fine example of Bax’s contrapuntal technique – although use of this ‘technical’ word is in danger of giving the impression that this work has an academic nature. ‘Mater ora filium’ is scored for unaccompanied double chorus with a short solo for tenor. Even a superficial hearing reveals extremely difficult part writing that makes strong demands on the singers. There is timelessness about this setting that seems to make influences and musical allusions unnecessary. It is a truly lovely anthem of devotion to Our Lady and her Son.

Mater ora filium was first performed at the Queen’s Hall on 13th November 1922 by the Oriana Choir conducted by Charles Kennedy Scott.
With thanks to the English Musical Festival 2006 Programme Book where this note was first published. 

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Arnold Bax: An Early Recording of ‘Mater ora filium’

I was perusing some early editions of The Gramophone magazine the other day. I was surprised to read that at July 1927 there was only a single work by the Arnold Bax currently available on record – the choral piece ‘Mater ora filium’. This work which was composed in 1921 was composed for unaccompanied double choir (SSAATTBB) and was based on an old carol discovered in the library of Balliol College, Oxford. David Parlett has written that this music was inspired after the composer heard a performance of Byrd’s Mass for five voices. The musicologist, Edward Dent has written that the ‘result on paper looks an almost unsingable jumble. In performance it was admirably calculated, full of the most adorable surprises.
The recording referred to was sung by the Leeds Festival Choir of 1925 and was issued under H.M.V. D.1044-5.  The reviewer in The Gramophone W.A. Chislett noted that the singing of this ‘difficult and exacting work is magnificent. No trace of flattening of pitch can be found, and the sustained high notes of the sopranos and the sonority of the basses are positively thrilling at times.’ He also praised the high quality of the recording, although he noted that, ‘in one or two places perfect balance in this complicated texture of sound is not achieved He concludes his review by suggesting that this is a work that needs to be heard repeatedly and that ‘it is in a work of this nature that the greatest benefit is derived from the gramophone.
Fortunately this very recording has been re-pristinated for the digital age by Symposium SYMPCD1336 and was released in 2003:  it is currently available for download at Amazon. It is truly a magnificent performance.  
There is a fine ‘modern’ recording, made in 1969 by the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge conducted by David Willcocks. This was released on EMI Classics 95433.
Finally I shall be considering W.A Chislett’s further remarks about Arnold Bax in later posts.


Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Mixed Doubles: Double Concertos by John Manduell & Gordon Crosse

Gordon CROSSE (b. 1937) ‘Brief Encounter’, for oboe d’amore, recorder and strings (2009) Concerto for viola and strings with horn (2009) Fantasia on ‘Ca’ the Yowes’, for recorder, harp and strings (2009) 
John MANDUELL (b.1928) Flutes Concerto, for flautist, harp, strings and percussion (2000) Double Concerto for oboe, cor anglais, strings and percussion (1985/2012) Michael Cox (flute) Richard Simpson (oboe/oboe d’amore) Alison Teale (cor anglais) John Turner (recorder) Matthew Jones (viola) Timothy Jackson (French horn) Anna Christensen (harp, CD1 Track 5) Deian Rowlands (harp, CD2 tracks 1-3) Manchester Sinfonia/Timothy Reynish
Métier MAV77201

I heard my first work by Gordon Crosse more than 40 years ago. I had found a second-hand review copy of his Changes for chorus and orchestra on the old Argo LP (ZRG-656). It was a piece that I struggled with at the time. In recent years I have been privileged to re-discover this masterly choral work as well as a number of other compositions by Crosse. The recent re-issue of Changes by Lyrita included the stunning Ariadne - Concertante for solo oboe and twelve players Op. 31 (1972).  I have not yet heard his major opera Purgatory, also on Lyrita. Dutton Epoch has released his Water Music (CDLX 7191) and his Elegy & Scherzo alla Marcia, Op.47 for string orchestra (CDLX 7207). NMC have issued his Cello Concerto and Some Marches on a Ground (NMC58).

Gordon Crosse was born in Bury, Lancashire in 1937 and has combined an academic career with composing.  His musical education included study with Egon Wellesz and Goffredo Petrassi in Rome. Crosse’s university appointments included Essex, Birmingham and in the United States at Santa Barbara. He was ‘composer in residence’ at King’s College Cambridge between 1973 and 1975. Over eighteen years ago Crosse largely suspended his compositional activity, but recently he has begun to write music one again. Works that have been issued recently included a trio for oboe, violin and cello, a violin sonata, music for recorder and an anthem for Blackburn Cathedral.

It is difficult to pin-point Crosse’s musical language – but I guess that it is a subtle balance between tonal and serial with excursions to more exotic formats. The music in the present disc is less complex and easier to assimilate than some of his earlier compositions. I would suggest that in Crosse’s music Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Britten are never too far away: the more avant-garde style of Petrassi is also influential.

Brief Encounter (2009) was written at the instigation of the doyen of the recorder (and many other things) John Turner. The music makes a sentimental nod to that great film starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. This present score is not romantic film music of the Rachmaninov-ian style – but a meditation on farewells.  Nevertheless, the music is romantic in its own way; the clever balancing of the oboe d’amore and the recorder giving the work a sense of sadness and regret. The piece is written in straightforward ternary form: the middle section is intense and even anguished, contrasting with the gentler music in the outer sections.

The major Crosse work on this CD is the Concerto for viola and strings, with French horn (2009). The composer writes that this music was a ‘rescue operation’ and utilised some themes and motifs that had been devised during the previous twenty years.
The Viola Concerto is presented in three contrasting movements. The opening Prelude is dominated by two folk-like tunes. However there is nothing of the ‘cow & gate’ about these. The movement is presented in an arch-like structure, with a considerable climax in the middle section. It is energetic, dramatic music that immediately captures the listener’s attention. The second movement is a deeply felt song that is heart-breaking in its effect. The form is once again relatively straightforward with the main melody being played over three times. There is a reference to the first movement towards the conclusion. The Finale, a vivace, is derived from an abandoned Trumpet Concerto written in 1998– this time it balances ‘machine shop’ rhythms with a Durham miner’s folksong. Amusingly, Crosse suggests that this tune was something that might have appealed to the Scottish composer Hamish MacCunn. Certainly it could be used as a theme tune in sit-com or soap ‘from north o’ the border’. It is exciting stuff with some thoughtful moments. The composer introduces the French horn into the palette of orchestral texture. This movement is cyclic with references to the opening ‘prelude’.   The Viola Concerto is an impressive and significant concerto that is of huge credit to Gordon Crosse. In many ways its stylistic content is far removed from his early music: the quality, the emotional content and the concentration are complete. It is a sympathetic and often moving work. I believe that this is one of the most important viola concertos in the catalogue: let us hope that it becomes a part of repertoire.

I was impressed with Crosse’s lovely Fantasia on “Ca’ the Yowes.” (2009). The composer has suggested that he hoped to write a piece along the lines of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves, but, ‘as usual things got more complicated as I worked, and the wonderful simplicity of RVW eluded me.’
The work is dedicated to Stephanie Rose Irvine, whom the composer had heard singing the folk-song, accompanied by the clarsach. What Crosse has done is to deconstruct the melody of the song and to present it either in sections, as a tune or as fragments. The harp has been substituted for the clarsach and the singing has been presented on the flute – or for this recording the recorder.  The string orchestra provides the background with some very attractive writing that does seem much closer to the soundscape of R.V.W. than the Gordon Crosse of old. The piece is well-structured, often moving and quite beautiful.

A few notes about Sir John Manduell may be of interest to those who have not yet come across his music. The composer was born in Johannesburg in 1928, however his family returned to the United Kingdom ten years later. Manduell read Modern Languages at Jesus College Cambridge. He won a Performing Rights Society Scholarship for post-graduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music: his composition tutors at this time were William Alwyn and Lennox Berkeley.  Manduell’s career was to embrace a wide variety of musical activities, which must necessarily have limited the amount of time spent on composition. Amongst many appointments were a BBC producer in London, the head of music for the Midlands and East Anglia, the first Director of Music at the University of Lancaster and in 1971 the first principal of the RNCM. He remained in that post until 1996. Other important activities included the first chairman of the European Opera Centre, programme director of the Cheltenham Festival for 25 years and service on the British Arts Council. From a compositional point of view, Manduell’s catalogue is tantalisingly small. He has written work in a number of genres, including chamber music and song.

Sir John Manduell is represented by comparatively few works on CD. The current Arkiv catalogue gives only one entry – the Rondo for Nine, which is part of the Manduell tribute CD ‘Antiphon’ from Dutton Epoch, (CDLX 7207). There is also a disc dedicated to a number of his chamber works including the Trois Chansons de la Renaissance for baritone and piano, the String Trio and a String Quartet. One or two other works are scattered about the catalogues such as the ‘C-H’ Aria and recitative dedicated to Peter Crossley-Holland. The two works presented on this CD are therefore amongst the few orchestral pieces that are available.

The ‘Flutes’ Concerto dates from a commission from Kent Nagano and the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. It dates from 2003. The title ‘Flutes’ Concerto is not a ‘typo’ but refers to the fact that the soloist is required to use the alto flute and the piccolo as well as the ‘concert flute.’ This latter flute is used exclusively in the opening 'vivo-lento’, however the slow second movement utilises the alto flute. The piccolo makes an appearance in the concluding allegro. There is also an involved part for harp – which I think makes this into another ‘double concerto.’ The two percussionists make an important contribution including the effective use of a ‘rain stick’.  The work is presented in three longish movements (it last for 26 minutes) and explores as variety of typically reflective motifs and themes.
The musical language is a fine example of an approachable ‘modern’ style that is challenging but never off-putting. Nevertheless, it is well within the tradition of British and French music. It makes use of dissonance, but in a controlled and sensitive manner. The melodies are always clear but never obvious or trite.

If I was seriously impressed by the Flutes Concerto, then the Double Concerto literally ‘took my breath away’.  This work began life as a 1985 BBC commission for the Cardiff Festival of that year. It originally had ‘dizi’ and ‘erhu’ soloists. The former is a Chinese flute and the latter is like a single stringed viol. It was composed in a sabbatical year whilst Manduell was on holiday in Hong Kong.   In 2012 the composer substantially revised the work for solo oboe and cor-anglais. There were apparently no examples of a double concerto for these forces.  In addition to the soloists and string orchestra there is a requirement for multiple percussionists.  
Manduell has created a diaphanous sound world that is strikingly beautiful as well as being musically interesting. There is a fine balance between the soloists who are in conversation, in agreement and in debate with each other. The musical language is designed to give a sense of timelessness to this music. There is no obvious (to me) reference to Chinese idioms implied by the work’s genesis. There are three movements: a well structured opening ‘adagio –allegro molto’, followed by a more penetrating and introspective ‘adagio molto’ with a short ‘allegro vivo’ bringing the proceedings to a close with an almost Bernstein-like aplomb.

The performance of all five works on this CD is splendid. These are demanding works that are not in the standard repertoire, yet the soloists and the Manchester Sinfonia make them sound second nature. The liner notes are written by the two composers and make essential reading as there are no other sources of information on these pieces. A little bit more analysis of the Manduell pieces would have been welcome. The CD sound quality is ideal and reflects the typically intimate nature of these works.
Finally I do hope that one day an enterprising CD company (like Métier) will seek to record Sir John Manduell’s Sunderland Point Overture. It is a work that I would love the opportunity to hear. Based on his two master-works presented on this CD, I can only assume that it will be something special. Sunderland Point is one of my favourite places, lying as it does between the estuary of the River Lune and Morecambe Bay.    

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Charles Villiers Stanford: An Appreciation by Henry Walford Davies

This is one of man tributes paid to Sir Charles Villiers Stanford shortly after his death on 29 March 1924, It need no editorial comment. 

I had but one term of close contact at College with him. The things I remember most vividly in his teaching were: that the ground-plan of each movement had to be perfect; that he ‘sensed’ it in a wonderful way if any measurement was wrong; that he did not repair the disproportion there and then except so far as the ground-plan was concerned. He would go to the piano and hammer out the necessary scheme with a more or less definite bass and a vague super-structure which left a pupil quite free to fancy for himself, but in no doubt as to the exact measurements within which his fantasy was to range.
Parry seemed to have intimate concern for and sympathy with the pupil's thought itself; Stanford's concern was to see the thought through to the hearer, whatever it was; so when the design seemed right he simply nodded and that was done with. The two men made so splendid a combination that we who had lessons from both were uniquely fortunate; and I may be pardoned here for mentioning Brahms's remark to me that ‘he hoped I taught others as well as my teachers has taught me.’
‘Make my compliments to your teachers’ was his message as we parted, with greeting to ‘Sir Grove.’ Whenever I think of him now, my mind will go back as it has dozens of times with gratitude to a trivial kindness of his. In 1889 I had sent in a half-baked exercise for the Cambridge Mus. Bac., which failed. There came a gratuitous letter from the Professor to the unknown candidate, to say that he felt justified in ‘breaking the rule of silence’ and encouraging me ‘to try again.’ It ended with the sentence: ‘Remember that a degree is the reward for excellence attained, not for excellence attainable.’ A scholarship exam at the R.C.M. followed: and this being a search for evidence of excellence attainable, gave him a further chance; and I shall never forget Stanford's kindly eager handshake with me in 1890, when he found himself able to recommend me (mostly on the rejected exercise) for a year's trial scholarship, and followed me through a packed crowd (in the passage in the old College) to say how glad he was. The professor and the composer were-for good and all-one man. His whole being, as I knew him, was as fully in that slight endearing act as in his greater vein of lovable melody. And when unborn singers revel in ‘Cuttin' rushes on the Mountain,’ they will have the same joy of personal contact with Stanford himself as I had in 1890, and as I shall hope to have countless times yet, whenever I hear or think upon a strain of his lovely music. 
Henry Walford Davies   Music & Letters July 1924 (with minor edits)

Thursday, 18 July 2013

William Alwyn: Hunter's Moon for piano

William Alwyn’s attractive suite ‘Hunter’s Moon’ was seemingly composed in the early 1920s but was not published by Associated Board until 1932/33. In many ways these are quite definitely for 'teaching' purposes; they were originally conceived as examination pieces. However, that is not to disparage them. No one would claim that this is great music and no one will expect to see many fingerprints of the composer that was to emerge in the post-war years. However one feature of these three miniatures that does strike the player and the listener is their neat craftsmanship. They are well balanced formally and ever so slightly daring harmonically.
The first piece, Midsummer Magic is a lovely little ‘allegretto e capriccioso’, which is perhaps just a little too fast to suggest a drowsy summer's evening. However there are two contrasting themes and a variety of accompaniment figurations, which makes it interesting for the player. Ernest Fowles, writing in the Musical Times in 1933 suggested that ‘a wistful and mystic touch pervades this music’. Furthermore, ‘...the direction ‘capriccioso’ must, however, be remembered, and also the absence of any climactic intensity; the result being a considerable demand upon the imagination of the player’.
The second piece, The Darkening Wood is influenced by John Ireland. This is by far the most difficult piece in this suite. The left-hand figuration is used over and over again; this suggests to me the static feel in a wood at night. Yet as we know, night-time also brings a wood to life with a thousand nocturnal creatures. So it is with this music. The interest is in the right hand and consists of a melody juxtaposed with brief snatches of that melody manipulated in a variety of ways. This ‘andante’ movement ends totally at peace with itself.
The last number has a feel of Schumann about it -a definite Night Ride through an English landscape as opposed to a German one. The tempo is 'allegro molto' throughout. There is some interesting chromatic writing here, with the harmony changing constantly. For an examination piece it is covered with accidentals. Maybe not one of Alwyn's best pieces, but played well it is exciting and rather fun.
Andrew Knowles has written that ‘surely each of these beguiling miniatures transcends that of mere examination pieces, so long after do the haunting melodies remain in the memory’. Andrew Aschenbach, writing in The Gramophone (November 2008) suggests that ‘...these pieces have ‘more than their fair share of winsome invention.’


William Alwyn’s Hunter’s Moon can be heard on Ashley Wass’ fine Naxos CD of the composer’s piano works. (8.570464

Monday, 15 July 2013

Peter Lee-Cox: Of Time and Season - songs for soprano and piano

Six Songs of Gerard Manley Hopkins (?):
Hurrahing in Harvest [2:49] Spring [2:37] Pied Beauty [1:34] Thee, God, I come from [2:28] As kingfishers catch fire [2:24] The Windhover [2:33]
Eight Seasonal Anthems (2005):
Noel Nouvelet (text by composer based on John XII: 24) [4:07] Behold, the herald's voice is calling (Johann G. Olearius) [4:37] Crown him, Lord of Lords (Thomas Kelly) [3:21] God's word is our great heritage (Nikolai Grundwig) [2:39] Baptised into your name most holy (John J. Rambach) [2:38] Saviour, when in dust to you (Robert Grant) [4:02] Come before the Saviour's table (?) [3:05] Rejoice, rejoice this happy morn (Birgitte K. Boye) [3:15]
Cathedral at Night for piano solo (1971) [3:05]
Collected Songs (c.1993):- Let the season lift your spirit (Katherine Foyle)  [3:25] The Clod and the Pebble (William Balke) [1:53] Winter Prelude (T.S. Elliot)  [3:10] Afterwards (Thomas Hardy)  [5:52] Sailing to Byzantium (William Butler Yeats) [4:54] Like the touch of Rain (Edward Thomas) [2:55] Garlic and Sapphires (T.S. Elliot) [2:07] Baby Sleeping (Anna Ahuja)  [3:20]
Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano) Jennie-Helen Moston (piano)
Rec. 9-11 August 2012, Jacqueline du Pre Building, St Hilda’s College, Oxford.
DIVINE ART dda25109 [73:02]

This new CD of songs by the composer, musical director and organist Peter Lea-Cox is a wide ranging exploration of English verse, songs and religious texts presented in what is a largely, but not entirely, a traditional (or conservative) musical language.  The songs range in mood from the soft dissonance of ‘Winter Prelude’ (T.S. Elliot) to the ‘catchy’ setting of Katherine Foyle’s ‘Let the Season lift your Spirit’. These numbers will appeal to listeners who enjoy the vocal music of composers such as Gerald Finzi and John Ireland, the emphasis being on a sensitive fusion of words and music.
I enjoyed the six Gerard Manley Hopkins settings, which were conceived as a song-cycle. The date of composition is not given. I recognise that these extremely familiar words must be exceedingly difficult to set in a convincing and novel manner.  Peter Lea-Cox has adopted a Finzi-like setting of most of these texts, which will remind the listener of that composer’s Dies Natalis.  There is a good contrast between lyrical music and a more declamatory style. Typically, the songs reveal themselves slowly: they tend to avoid strophic repetition. The largely syllabic settings of these words are particularly effective. I did not like the hymn-like setting of ‘Thee, God I come from, to thee go’- it is in danger of sounding like RVW’s ‘Linden Lea’. Unfortunately, the liner notes give no analysis of these songs: it is as if they have been forgotten.

I am old fashioned. I do not agree with the premise that ‘solo songs’ can be substituted for the choral anthem at Matins or Evensong. It is but a short step from this to choruses accompanied by guitars and synthesisers. It probably has its place – but not in any formal liturgy.  The present ‘Eight Seasonal Anthems’ were written in 2005 for use in the Lutheran Church in London: the texts were culled from that denomination’s Book of Worship.  In themselves these are delightful songs that slip between an almost Andrew Lloyd Webber-y ‘pop’ feel to RVW/Holst folksong and back to something a little more profound.  The effect is typically thoughtful.  I would suggest that this set of eight songs actually makes a good ‘song-cycle’ that could be presented in a church-based recital.
There is a short ruminative piano prelude that has crept into the batting list. It is a fine example of a gently atonal piece that nods to Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie. I certainly hope that there is more where this came from.
I enjoyed the ‘collected songs’ best of all.  Usually, when a poet issues their ‘complete poems,’ it will include scraps, juvenilia and ‘uncollected’ fragments. When it is a volume of ‘collected’ poems it refers to a carefully edited selection of their major achievements. In the case of Peter Lea-Cox’s ‘Collected Songs’ I understand that they have been judiciously chosen from a huge pile of manuscripts. The introduction suggests that the date of composition of these eight songs covers a period of two decades.  I do not believe that they are meant to be heard as a cycle as they are too diverse and lack a musical or literary theme: these songs cover a wide range of poetical and musical emotion.  They are settings of poems by a broad selection of poets including T.S. Elliot, William Butler Yeats and Edward Thomas as well as poets who were members of the composer’s church.
I had not heard any music by Peter Lea-Cox before reviewing this disc. I was aware of his exploits as an organ recitalist and as the founder of the Lecosaldi Ensemble and his directorship of the Camden Chamber Choir. When he was director of music at St. Jude-on-the-Hill Church (1973-1986), he composed a number of anthems and canticle settings. During his time at St Anne’s & St Agnes City Church he produced a ‘huge corpus’ of short choir pieces and ‘offertories’ for solo voice and continuo. These were used at Sunday morning worship.  One of his larger achievements is four ‘Passions’ which balance modern and baroque idioms. I understand that he wrote a number of Chorale Preludes for the organ in a variety of contrasting styles.
Lesley-Jane Rogers gives an outstanding account of these songs. Her voice is well-suited to the variety of moods and styles required by these songs. Her strength lies in holding an effective balance between the more forceful and extrovert numbers and the intimate reflective songs.  The accompanist Jennie-Helen Moston (does everyone associated with this CD have a hyphenated name?) makes a valuable and sympathetic contribution to the proceedings. The liner notes are good (with the above mentioned exception). The sound quality is ideal.
I suggest that these three groups of songs be taken as distinct groups. It is not a CD to listen to from end to end. In case anyone thinks I am being unkind to the composer, I would take the same view of a disc of songs by Schubert, Britten or Ireland. Explore slowly and enjoy the diversity of these songs.  

Friday, 12 July 2013

Whisky Galore: music by Ernest Irving.

Whisky Galore (1949) is one of the great classic films made by Ealing Studios in the post war years. It was unusual in that much of it was shot on location on the Isle of Barra in the Western Isles of Scotland.  The screenplay, by Angus MacPhail was based on Sir Compton Mackenzie’s book of the same title however there were a number of simplifications of the story to make it suitable for the screen.  The story concerns the adventures of the local inhabitants when a cargo ship loaded with whisky runs aground off the island of Todday.  The locals salvage much of the whisky but have to hide it from the ‘pompous and high-minded’ local Home Guard commander, Captain Waggett.  The film starred Basil Radford, Joan Greenwood and Gordon Jackson. The story is based on a real-life incident when the SS Politician was wrecked off the coast of the Isle of Eriskay.
The ‘ebullient’ score was provided by Ernest Irving (1878-1958) who was a composer, arranger and conductor. He had recently written the music to another Ealing comedy, Passport to Pimlico.  In 1948 Irving had conducted the sound track for the classic Scott of the Antarctic with music by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
A short suite of the music was arranged by Philip Lane and released on The Ladykillers with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Kenneth Alwyn.  The Suite opens with a martial tune, soon followed by a jig which is played in counterpoint. The dance begins to dominate the proceedings. There is a short bridge passage leading to the ‘lover’s tune’ celebrating the relationship between the English Sergeant Odd and Joseph Macroon’s daughter, Peggy.   This is so typical of romantic film scores of the period: there is nothing Scottish about this. The second part of the suite uses music heard when the locals board the stricken ship and begin to unload the cargo onto smaller boats. This section continues with music used in the chase towards the end of the film. The dancing music recurs. The final bars are a reflection on the fact that after all the salvaged whisky had been drunk, the islanders could not afford to buy the legal stuff, because the prices had risen to such an great extent.  
The film score is full of pastiche Scottish tunes. However, Irving is presumed to have only quoted a single genuine tune throughout. The composer uses an array of musical effects to present a definite Celtic feel to this score: Scotch snaps abound, dance tunes fall over each other, but there is also a darker, more introspective mood at times.  Miguel Mira and David Burnand in European Film Music (2006, Ashgate Publishing) have suggested that Ernest Irving’s score ‘seems positively lush with its expansive seascapes and emotive expressions of anxiety in the community.’

The Suite was released on Silva Screen Records in 1997. The film, which is in black and white, is readily available from Amazon

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Cranmer Legacy: Choral Music

Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872–1958)
Service in D minor “Christ’s Hospital” (1938)
John SANDERS (1933–2003) The Firmament (2000) 
Paul SPICER (b.1952) Let not your heart be troubled (2011)
Sir Henry WALFORD DAVIES (1869–1941)  Short Requiem in D major [1915]
Regent REGCD389

I will nail my colours to the mast. I am a ‘card carrying’ member of the Prayer Book Society. However, like most members, I am not a Cranmer Bigot. There is an important place for liturgical revision and modern versions of the bible and services. On the other hand, so many of the recent liturgical changes have been unfortunate. Since 1662 the Book of Common Prayer has been authorised for use and fortunately we still have it. It has been revised a number of times over the centuries, but typically has not had the language dumbed-down. The last major update of the traditional language book was the ill-fated 1928 revision which was voted down in Parliament.
Since 1960 we have had Series 1, Series 2, Series 3, Alternative Service Book (1980) and finally Common Worship (2000). It has been an exponential progression of sidelining Cranmer’s language and substituting ‘contemporary’ words. To be fair, Common Worship does contain a good selection of ‘traditional texts.’ However this is not the full picture: parish churches and dioceses have set up their ‘liturgical groups’ and have introduced ‘local uses’ on an almost church by church basis. There is an ever-present danger of this turning into anarchy. Liturgical Groups seem to take the view that if only we get rid of the ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s,’ make the language inclusive and remove any word that is not in the vocabulary of a nine year old primary school scholar, then the people will flock into the pews. This has not happened. They have managed to throw the numinous content out alongside the beauty of the language and sometimes the meaning and theology of the text.
Fortunately, there are still plenty of churches and cathedrals that recognise the importance of superlative speech in their services and make regular use of 1662 –even if only at the early morning Communion Service or Choral Evensong. 2012 saw the 350th Anniversary of the publication of Cranmer’s masterpiece. The present CD is a celebration of the majesty and beauty of that book. It presents four works that have been inspired by a response Cranmer’s ‘incomparable language’.

Most Anglican churchgoers will be familiar with the ubiquitous ‘Merbecke’ and will be able to ‘join in’ with the progress of the musical part of the liturgy. Some unison settings for Series 3, ASB and Common Worship are also perfectly singeable by choir and congregation. However, the worshippers typically do not ‘join in’ when the choir are singing a ‘sung setting’. I think of some well-know works like Stanford in B flat or one of Howells Canticles. These are complex works that require practice and perseverance to present the music effectively.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Service in D minor ‘Christ’s Hospital’ was composed in 1938 and was specifically written for Dr. C.S. Lang and his singers at ‘Christ’s Hospital.’ Michael Kennedy in his catalogue has quoted a note on the score by the composer: it bears repeating:- ‘This service is designed for college chapels and other churches where there is, besides the choir, a large body of voices who also wish to share in the musical settings of the service. The part allotted to these voices is entirely in unison or octaves. The part for the choir is, it is hoped, reasonably simple...’ it is therefore a halfway house between a simple setting and one for choir only.
This note really defines the mood of the music. Paul Spicer has written that this Service ‘[is] strong-boned, masculine, no-nonsense music.’  I guess that there is a danger that the singing of such a setting may become a little raucous or over enthusiastic:  however the recording here is well-stated. The music is often subtle and is always restrained, even when exhibiting power and majesty.
R.V.W. in D minor has some stunningly beautiful moments that are a million miles away from a chapel full of lustily singing schoolboys. It is a satisfying work that amply fulfils its purpose; however, I doubt that this setting will be used on any kind of regular basis in ‘churches and place where they sing.’

John Sanders’ ‘The Firmament’ is inspiring. The text is collated from the Book of Common Prayer and part of Joseph Addison’s (1672-1719) Ode ‘The spacious firmament on high’. The anthem is set for treble soloist, choir and organ.  It was commissioned by Coutts Bank for the organist Marcus Huxley and the Choir of Birmingham Cathedral to celebrate the Millennium.  The setting is quite ‘modern’ in its sound and concept. The organ acts more as a commentary on the proceedings rather than as an accompaniment. The opening line ‘The heavens declare the glory of God’, acts as a connection between the liturgical and the poetic texts. There is a beautiful treble solo at the words ‘The Lord himself is thy Keeper.’ ‘The Firmament’ is a well-crafted work that successfully balances two strands of achievement in the English language –poetry and liturgy.

The anthem ‘Let not your heart be troubled’ by Paul Spicer is a welcome addition to the choral repertoire. This piece was composed as recently as 2011, yet is timeless in its use of choir and organ. The anthem was commissioned by John Gilbert Harvey as a memorial to his parents. The text is taken from the King James Bible rather than the BCP. It is a lovely, reflective work that is both heart-easing and inspiring.

Sir Henry Walford Davis suffers from being known for three or four works – the well-known ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ tune, the Solemn Melody heard at the Cenotaph, the RAF March Past and the anthem ‘God be in my Head.’ However his achievement is much wider. There are two symphonies, the second of which is to be performed at this year’s English Music Festival.  There is the major oratorio Everyman, a number of short orchestral works  including the evocative ‘Big Ben Looks On’, the ‘Holiday Tunes’ Suite and the piano ‘concerto’ Conversations. Also included in his catalogue are many chamber works, an operetta, The Pied Piper of Hamelin and dozens of songs and part-songs. Church music is an important part of his opus. There are many services, anthems, hymn-tunes and carols. He is a composer awaiting rediscovery.
The Short Requiem was composed in 1915 ‘in sacred memory of those who have fallen in the war.’ Alas, there were to be many more casualties before Armistice Day.  The text is a confection of words that includes Latin, extracts from the Book of Common Prayer, a hymn written by the composer and some words by John Lydgate (c.1370-1451). It is an appropriate selection that is both effective and moving. The musical content of the Requiem is relatively straightforward and does not challenge the technical abilities of the choir yet the singing here is perfect. The overall effect is one of devotion and meditation. There is nothing untoward about this music: it is the perfect accompaniment to the ‘Service for the Dead’.

The singing in all these works is superb and the organist makes a major contribution to the success of this CD. With the exception of John Sanders’ anthem all these works are new to me and I guess will be to most potential listeners. Paul Spicer’s liner notes are first-rate and make essential reading.

I recommend this CD to all enthusiasts of the English Cathedral/Parish Church musical tradition. It is especially good to have Vaughan Williams’ rarely heard service available in its entirety on disc.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

George Lloyd (1913-1998)
The Vigil of Venus - for soloists, chorus and orchestra (1980)
Carolyn James, soprano; Thomas Booth, tenor;
The Orchestra & Chorus of the Welsh National Opera, conducted by George Lloyd.
The British Music Collection
Decca 473-437

I have always struggled with the music of George Lloyd. Let me explain. It is not that I do not like it. I find much of it attractive, enjoyable, interesting and moving. I certainly appreciate his ability to write good melodies that are well-harmonised and musical structures that are formally sound. I admire his consistent attempt at flying in the face of the modernist and avant-garde project. But that is part of the problem. At the risk of offending Lloyd aficionados I feel that it his music is to a certain extent primitive. Not in a sense that he was not musically educated; he was taught by William Lovelock and Harry Farjeon at Trinity College of Music. It is not as if he deliberately tried to produce music that sounded as if it was written by someone who was not formally trained. It is just the fact that he seems to deliberately and consistently ignore new developments in musical form and structure. Many composers have dabbled in serialism, for example, without making a fetish of it - we need only think of William Alwyn. It is possible to take and develop prevailing fashions. Many composers in the 1950s were influenced by Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony and used its structure as a model for their own creations without writing in the French composer's style.
Yet somehow Lloyd seems to fly in the face of all musical development - it is as if he has decided to ignore all that has happened and ploughed his own furrow through the musical landscape.
Britten did the same, yet somehow he developed a unique language of his own that is instantly recognisable.  Lloyd's music always sounds like someone else. I can never quite pin him down. If I heard a piece of his music with an 'innocent ear' I would probably not guess him as the composer -even if I thoroughly enjoyed the work: I would always give another composer the benefit of the doubt!

Yet all this is not fair - no one can accuse George Lloyd of writing pastiche music. That is not the case. What he does is to build on much that has gone before in the musical heritage. He is able to produce fresh sounding music that is a pleasure to listen to and is thoroughly enjoyable. He does compose in a style that is not off putting to the majority of listeners. Yet does he challenge them? On that question my jury is at present out!

The one work on this excellent CD is a case in point. This was composed in 1979/1980 yet large chunks of it could almost have been written at almost any time over the past century.
This is a vast choral work with solo soprano and tenor with orchestral accompaniment. It is a setting of the late Latin work- Pervigilium Veneris- The Vigil of Venus. The words were written as a celebration of Venus. The sentiment of the entire piece is summed up in the words 'Cras amet qui numquam amavit; quique amavit cras amet,' which loosely translated means ‘Tomorrow you must learn to love those who have never loved - and you folk who have been in love, learn to love again!’  This is a recurring theme of the entire work. Lloyd himself describes the original Latin poem as a 'spring song, a love poem, the Creation itself.' The Latin is 'barbarous - in the sense that it is not Ciceronian - but was probably written by a poet who hails from one of the Northern Provinces of the Roman Empire. It has even been suggested that it could have been written by a Romano-Briton.

This is not the place to do a detailed analysis of this seventy eighty minute work. To do so without the score would be futile. It would have been nice if the CD booklet had provided more detailed programme notes. As it is, there are a few paragraphs by the composer on the choice of poem and a brief overview of the composer's life and works.
The Vigil of Venus is a huge work - both in design and subject. There are allusions - to a variety of composers - including Wagner, Verdi, Elgar, Holst and most certainly Frederick Delius - especially in the final movement. This is one of the problems with this work - there is a lack of stylistic unity - somehow it just does not seem to be a coherent whole. Many passages in this work are stunning, glorious, moving and meditative. Much of the orchestration is superb. There are numerous passages written for orchestra alone. It is clear that Lloyd was to become adept at composing for brass band - there are many delicious moments for brass here. There is much fine choral writing here that must be fun to sing.
However there are some pages of this work that seem to me to be quite frankly padding. This may be because the composer has decided to set the entire text. Much of this music is operatic in feel rather than choral.

The recording is good, although some of the singing seems quite weak. I wish that the translation of the Latin text had been placed adjacent to the poem rather than following it. I found it quite difficult flicking back and forth as my Latin is no longer strong enough to translate at sight!
This is an interesting CD by one of Britain's lesser know great composers. It is very much a work like the curate's egg -good in parts. What it lacks in consistency it makes up in invention and a big choral sound.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Peter Yorke: Cocktails by Candlelight

It has been many years since I enjoyed a cocktail in the Dorchester Hotel. I seem to recall that the price was hardly ‘budget.’ Today’s prices are around £16 per cocktail. But then there is the caché of the place, not to mention the possibility of seeing one of the great and good parading through the main atrium or one of the bars. Peter Yorke’s attractive miniature reminded me of this experience. I am not too sure when the piece was composed, but the currently available recording on Guild suggests that it might have been around 1960.  
The music has all the attributes of a romantic prelude: sweeping strings, harp glissandi and restrained interpolations from the brass department.  Peter Yorke was an arranger and well as a composer and conductor and this is certainly apparent in this piece. Not only is the tune perfectly attuned to the mood, but the orchestration is well balanced, smooth and complimentary to the picture suggested by the title.  In the present recording the composer also conducts the Telecast Orchestra.
Peter Yorke’s Cocktails by Candlelight is available on The Golden Age of Light Music: Melodies for the Starlight Hours GLCD5196.